Steve Martin: Comedian Takes Banjo Seriously For longtime fans who remember his stand-up act from the '70s, Steve Martin's love for the banjo is not that surprising. Early in his career, Martin's often manic routine included satirical songs ("Ramblin' Guy" or "Grandmother's Song") performed on the banjo, used more as a prop for his comedic delivery. Martin rediscovers his musical side with a new album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.
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Steve Martin: Comedian Takes Banjo Seriously

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Steve Martin: Comedian Takes Banjo Seriously

Steve Martin: Comedian Takes Banjo Seriously

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of song, "The Crow")

BLOCK: A Gibson Florentine banjo made in 1927 in the hands of Steve Martin.

(Soundbite of song, "The Crow")

BLOCK: The actor and comedian has been playing and loving the banjo for 45 years, writing his own tunes, including this one, the title song of his new CD, "The Crow."

(Soundbite of song, "The Crow")

BLOCK: Steve Martin, how would you describe this love affair with the banjo that you have: passionate, unrequited, tempestuous, what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Comedian, Actor, Banjo Player): Well, I - the thing about the banjo is when you first hear it, it strikes many people as what's that? There's something very compelling about it to certain people, and to other people I think it just, you know, it falls on deaf ears. But that's the way I was. That's the way a lot of banjo players and people who love the banjo are. They first hear it, it strikes them in some way at their core.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, when you first picked up a banjo and started trying to figure out how to play it, were you surprised at how hard it was? Did it strike you that, oh my goodness, I thought this would be easy, and actually, it's going to take a while?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, it's like the briar patch. I can't tell you if it was hard, because I didn't have anything to compare it with. You know, it's where I grew up. That's why I compare it to the briar patch. It's just - I got some books. I got Earl Scruggs' book on how to play the banjo. I got Pete Seeger's book on how to play the banjo. And another technique was once you had some fundamentals down, was to take 33-rpm records and slow them down to 16…

BLOCK: So you could figure it out.

Mr. MARTIN: …and tune the banjo down so it'd be in the same tune and pick it out note by note.

BLOCK: Most of the songs on this CD are songs that you've written over the years, some many years ago. Let's listen to one called, "Wally on the Run."

(Soundbite of song, "Wally on the Run")

BLOCK: Okay, who's Wally?

Mr. MARTIN: Wally is our dog. And we got him as a puppy. And I have a house in Los Angeles where there's a long hallway with three steps in the middle, three descending steps. And he loved to run down that hallway and leap, spreading his paws out and leap into the air. And I had been playing that little opening lick and watching him do that, and it became a soundtrack to him running. And then, you could hear it, it does have a little dog-like bark-bark in it.

BLOCK: Now, which part are you hearing as the barking?

Mr. MARTIN: I'll tell you. Here. Right here.

(Soundbite of song, "Wally on the Run")

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Yap yap. I think I hear a little leaping in there, too.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, you can visualize the whole thing.

BLOCK: What kind of dog is he?

Mr. MARTIN: He's a lab.

BLOCK: Well, he has a song in his honor now. He's got to be happy about that.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, he's ecstatic.

BLOCK: You brought one of your banjos into the studio with you today.

Mr. MARTIN: I did.

BLOCK: And I wonder if you could demonstrate something for us.

Mr. MARTIN: Sure.

BLOCK: I want you to show us the difference between finger-picking style, Earl Scruggs-style banjo playing and frailing, or clawhammer style.

Mr. MARTIN: Okay, happy to do that. I'll play the Scruggs style first. Put the picks on. There's a pick on the thumb, a pick on the first finger and a pick on the second finger, and you use those three fingers. And I'll play my song, "Calico Train," which is on the record.

(Soundbite of song, "Calico Train")

Mr. MARTIN: So you get the idea.

BLOCK: Yeah, we're hearing the metal of the picks on those strings.

Mr. MARTIN: Right, right. I think I'll tune this up and play up.

(Soundbite of banjo tuning)

Mr. MARTIN: 'Cause this gives you the feeling of frailing. This is played with no picks, and it's really plucked down on the string with the back of the fingernail. And as the three-finger style, you're plucking, you're plucking up, and here you are striking down.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: How would you describe the different sounds that you're getting with those two different styles?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I think of three-finger - although, these two categories really can overlap in mood - three-finger as driving and staccato. And I think of frailing as moody and melancholy, although, there's, you know, very happy frailing songs and very sad three-finger songs.

BLOCK: When you're home, do you ever just take out your banjo and just look at it as just a thing of beauty?

Mr. MARTIN: I do. I think banjos are incredibly beautiful, just the fundamental look of a banjo, you know, a cylinder and a stick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: And they're - I think they're very, very beautiful.

BLOCK: And when you hold it, does it - is it pleasing? I mean, does it feel like a real part of you by now?

Mr. MARTIN: Yes. Yeah, it really does. There's - we're getting into very esoteric things here, but there's a difference in standing and holding the banjo and sitting and holding the banjo. I don't know. I find there's something really aesthetically appealing about looking at a banjo player standing. And sitting, it's a little more like being in an orchestra. Although, I prefer sitting, because it just gives you a better angle on the neck.

BLOCK: We get to hear you sing on the album, on one song.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes.

BLOCK: "Late for School."

(Soundbite of song, "Late for School")

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) Woke up this morning, clock said I was late for school. Teacher told me, that's not cool. Got to put my shirt and pants on, flew down the front stairs, wet my fingers and slicked my hair. Elbowed grandma passing by, her face went into a pie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: If I'm late there's misery. I won't be up on history. I'll be in with English grammar…

BLOCK: Important to have grandma's face in the pie in this song.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, yes, absolutely. It's hard to stop it.

BLOCK: Yeah, I guess so. Fun to write?

Mr. MARTIN: Very fun to write. I was using all the rhyming dictionaries I could find.

BLOCK: Oh really, like with flamingo?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, flamingos and Filipinos.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Late for School")

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) Leapt across three lawn flamingos, waved to Sal, he's Filipino. Jumped a fence and found that I was headed toward a pool.

BLOCK: You know, you've used the banjo over the years, sort of as part of your comedy routines. It's really a prop. And clearly, there's this other side of you that takes it very seriously. How do you sort of bring those two threads together, do you think?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, when I was - when I first started doing my comedy act, I was - I just desperately needed material. So, I took literally everything I knew how to do on stage with me, which was juggling, it was magic and banjo and my little comedy routines. And I always felt like the audience kind of tolerated the serious musical parts while I was doing my comedy act.

I don't know, I just have an affection for it, let's say, offstage, and the sounds it can make. And I love hearing new players. It's like listening to a mystery when you hear some people play. I just say, I have no idea how they do that. It's magic, and it's beautiful.

BLOCK: Well, Steve Martin, it's great to talk to you. Thanks for coming in, and thanks for bringing your banjo today.

Mr. MARTIN: Okay, thanks so much.

BLOCK: You can hear more tunes from Steve Martin's CD, "The Crow," and watch videos of some of his banjo performances at

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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